EU Democracy Promotion through Civil Society

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

This is the second of a short series of articles on democracy promotion. The topic has been picked up because of its increasingly controversial nature in international politics. In the first two pieces, the democracy promotion policy carried out by the US and the EU are analyzed. In the remaining articles, a more comparative and critical examination will be developed.


EU’s engagement with civil society is by now a constitutive and central element of EU identity. As analyzed in a previous article, the EU, especially its executive branch the European Commission, has a long history of consultation with non-governmental counterparts. In the ‘60s and ‘70s the Commission focused on “consultation” with primarily economic experts. In the ‘80s and ‘90s on “partnership” within the phase of social dialogue on specific policy areas. And in the ‘90s and 2000s on “participation” with the entrance of the idea of participatory democracy. In today’s complex, multi-level system of European governance, societal actors play an important role. So much so that it is not uncommon to question the precise role of the EU institutions vis a vis the different interest groups: are EU institutions masters of fate of the plethora of non-governmental actors that try to influence the EU decision-making process mainly through lobbying or are they more simply victims of external pressure?

In the domain of the EU external action service (i.e., EU foreign policy, in Brussels parlance), the relationship between EU institutions and civil society actors is intense. A particularly important dimension of such relationship is the policy field of democracy and human right promotion, in which civil society actors constitute a key partners.

Some of the reasons why civil society has been selected as a key partner in this area are shared by the US democracy promotion programme (discussed elsewhere). As already in the American case, also here civil society organizations are ultimately assumed to be carriers of virtue. They are expected not to have vested interests and to be able to promote reform more effectively from below.

To this, EU adds a robust argument on the interlink between democracy, human rights, peace, and civil society. Civil society organizations are ultimately seen as schools of democracy and collective trust generators. They are expected to fundamentally generate social capital, i.e. links and connections among people that result in the creation of norms of cooperation, reciprocity and trust. Further crucial elements derive from such elements like a participatory civil culture, the articulation of citizens’ interests, and an increased institutional responsiveness. From this, the way is then open towards a democratic and peaceful society.

The European Union, historically conceived as a peace project, has considered peace promotion as a cardinal objective of its fledging foreign policy. The Lisbon Treaty explicitly states that the EU aims to promote peace and that its role in the world should reflect the principles that have inspired its creation, development and enlargement. The Treaty identifies the contribution to peace, the prevention of conflict and the strengthening of international security amongst its core foreign policy priorities. More specifically, the EU’s conception of peace has been liberal in nature, including the principles of democracy, human rights, rule of law, international law, good governance and economic development.

The promotion of “liberal peace” has been prioritized above all in the European neighborhood. This was made clear in the 2003 Security Strategy, which argues that the Union’s task is to ‘make a particular contribution to stability and good governance in our immediate neighbourhood (and) to promote a ring of well governed countries to the East of the EU and on the borders of the Mediterranean with whom we can enjoy cooperative relations’.

The EU views as critical “indicators” of conflict transformation issues such as human rights, democracy, state legitimacy, rule of law, social solidarity, sustainable development and a flourishing civil society. Underpinning the EU’s objective of conflict resolution and transformation are thus the two cardinal principles of human rights protection and democracy promotion. These have slowly consolidated within the EU’s foreign policy approach, and are now critical building blocks in the EU’s external relations discourse.

The promotion of human rights was already present in the European Political Cooperation agenda of the 1970s, but it was not until 1986 that, under pressure from the European Parliament, it became a cardinal principle of European foreign policy, then widely adopted in the post Cold War period. With the fall of the Berlin wall, the EU began inserting human rights as an “essential element” in its trade agreements, as well as within its aid programmes and in the context of its enlargement policy (i.e., through the 1993 Copenhagen political criteria). Since then, human rights, together with democracy, the rule of law, protection of minorities and market economic principles, have become cornerstones in EU policies of conditionality and political dialogue with third countries in the near and far abroad.

As for the justification of these policies, human rights and democracy have been promoted for two key reasons: on the one hand, instrumentally, as part of a broad security rationale whereby if human rights are violated and democracy not implemented then the EU’s own security and stability are also assumed to be threatened and the EU interaction with third countries to be more difficult; on the other hand, as part of the normative rationale whereby human rights have universal validity and represent a vital component of the EU’s own identity. To these, we should add that human rights promotion is pursued by member states and the EU also for domestic reasons, related to the acquisition of domestic legitimacy by occupying an alleged moral high-ground in foreign policy.

The EU holds a specific understanding of human rights that is not fully shared either by many other countries, be they democratic or authoritarian, or by all international organizations. EU priorities on human rights includes the following: fight against death penalty, against torture, and in support of children’s rights, women’s right, freedom of religion, LGBT’s rights, minorities’ rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and rights of the people with disabilities. It is easy to notice that depending on which human rights is picked up, a different alliance can be constructed. If the fight against death penalty is at stake, Russia might be a good partner and the US a bad one. If the fight for LGBT right is at stake the opposite is true. As a consequence, controversies are generated almost every time the EU attempts to spread this specific understanding to third parties and to international organization.

The Union promotes human rights in large part through its “constructive engagement” with third parties. By constructive engagement EU actors have meant the deployment of a rich variety of measures of cooperation, which are normally specified in contractual agreements with third countries. These contractual relations take different forms, entailing different degrees of integration into and cooperation with the EU. They range from the accession process aimed at the full membership of a candidate country to looser forms of association, which envisage measures of economic, political and social cooperation with EU structures short of full membership.

In terms of policy mechanisms used to pursue these structural changes, the EU deploys positive and negative conditionality, aid for human-rights programmes, and diplomatic instruments such as declarations, démarches and political dialogue (including specific human rights dialogues). Two much discussed cases of such mechanisms are the case of Turkey that has its accession to the EU conditioned on the abolition of death penalty, and the case of Moldova that had its visa free regime conditioned on the introduction of new legislation in favor of LGBT rights.

Yet another critical component in the EU’s foreign policy vision regards the role of civil society in the human rights promotion. Civil society is viewed here both as an aim to be promoted in and of itself, as well as a means through which the Union can pursue more effectively objectives such as the promotion of peace, democracy and human rights.

The EU has approached civil society and impinged upon its nature and functioning in indirect and direct ways.

Indirectly, the EU can contribute to democracy and human right promotion through civil society by altering the structure in which CSOs operate, for example by raising the interconnectedness between CSOs and the state on the one hand, and CSOs and the grassroots on the other. By covering a wide range of sectors such as institutions, law, infrastructure, health, education, trade and investment, EU policies can thus shape the overall environment in which CSOs operate.

Directly, the EU would enhance the agency of CSOs engaged in democracy and human rights promotion. This direct targeting can take three principal forms. First it can limit itself to forms of dialogue with and on CSOs: publicly expressing appreciation/condemnation for particular organizations, attending their activities, and facilitating access to contacts and information exchanges between CSOs as well as between CSOs and international actors. Second, EU actors can engage with civil society through training, for instance by providing scholarships and technical material and training courses to CSO representatives in fields such as communication (e.g., political debate, public relations and advocacy), substantive issues such as international law, human rights and Community law, as well as in building organizational and financial capacity and in recruiting supporters and members. Third, the EU’s direct engagement with CSOs can take the form of financial support, including funding to organizations or to specific programmes and projects. Some of these funds are channeled through the intermediation of official institutions in third countries. Others are instead directly delivered to CSOs.

The programme that is most active on this direct financing of non-governmental organizations on issue of democracy and human right is the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights - EIDHR. This is a major financing instrument used by the EU to support CSOs worldwide and, through them, provide aid for human rights and democracy. The overall funding for EIDHR is small in proportion to the total EU external relations budget and even smaller when matched against the whole EU budget, but it has decisively increased over the years. This proves that democracy and human rights are increasingly viewed as necessary aims of foreign policy to be pursued, inter alia, through civil society.

EU Aid Programmes

The EIHDR prioritizes cooperation with civil society organizations (and international organizations) around the world without limiting itself to the cooperation and consent of host governments. The EIDHR ‘builds on work done with and through civil society organizations aimed at defending the fundamental freedoms which form the basis for all democratic processes and helping civil society to become an effective force for political reform and defence of human rights’.

The EIDHR is intended to act as a soft policy instrument, non-prescriptive, grassroots and focused on social development. Underlying this approach is also the recognition of the need for “local ownership”. According to the EU, this is difficult to achieve when relations with partner countries are limited to government-to-government contacts. Hence the continuing importance of support to civil society and human rights defenders to help empower citizens, allow them to claim their rights and build and sustain momentum for change and political reform.

What emerges from this logic is that, since military intervention is not a feasible option for the EU, or, some would argue, a desirable option given the EU’s self-proclamation as a soft, civilian or normative power, the EU’s approach has privileged acting through civil society. Hence not only does the EU claim to promote universal normative values such as democracy and human rights, but the means through which it does so – civil society – are viewed by the EU as a legitimate way to influence domestic affairs within third states. While other means of actions are considered unwarranted, this soft, reactive, grassroots, non-coercive and allegedly non-prescriptive approach is considered fully justified.

However, what is often overlooked in this official discourse is that this approach remains highly political. As opposed to former funding for development NGOs which was mainly devoted to technical assistance, the EIDHR aims at transforming the societies in which it operates towards democratization through civil society. Despite being mediated by civilian actors, this external influence is perceived by many countries as an illegitimate because it artificially changes societies from outside, through the infiltration of foreign ideas and interests backed by money and political support.